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  1. Opinion

There’s a better way to do foster care | Column

In the case of a Pasco toddler, Florida can learn lessons from other states, writes an advocate.

There’s a little boy in Pasco County who was featured in the Tampa Bay Times. I really wish he hadn’t been. Unlike other kids who are excited to see themselves in the pages of the local newspaper, this child’s story is featured for his tragedy, not his triumph.

The boy was abused so severely that he couldn’t remain in his home. I don’t know his name and I don’t know the details of what he suffered – child welfare matters are not public – but I know he was placed into foster care and moved six times before he was 15 months old. But after his first birthday, life was looking up. The little guy moved to a foster family where he has now, at age 3, lived for most of his life. He is attached and bonded to this family, and when he went up for adoption, the foster mom did what any loving parent would do, she prepared to adopt him.

Rebecca Masterson [ Courtesy of Rebecca Masterson ]

A happy ending, right?

Wrong.

At the 11th hour, a second foster parent appeared and told the court she wanted to adopt the child. As it turns out, the woman is not related to the child, but she has been temporarily fostering two older children from the same biological parent.

I do not envy the judge faced with a choice between allowing a three-year-old to remain where he has lived for almost two years, but losing the opportunity of living with his biological half-siblings, versus placing siblings together, but removing a child from the only mother he’s ever known. While I don’t envy this decision, I do firmly believe that both options should be equally available to every judge faced with this situation. Right now, they are not equally available.

Currently, the laws in the majority of states favor blood ties in every situation without regard for the individual circumstances of the child.

If you’re saying “this makes no sense,” let me tell you, I understand. As chief counsel of Gen Justice, a non-profit dedicated to better protecting children in state care, I see this all the time.

The good news is there is a solution. Let me tell you about Violet.

Violet was 36 hours old when she was placed in her foster home. A few months later, Violet’s mother, who was in prison, asked the foster family to adopt her daughter. The family was honored to fulfill the mother’s request. Violet was thriving. But what should have been a clear and uninterrupted path to adoption by the only family Violet had ever known was thwarted by this absolute preference for relative placements.

As Violet’s adoption was pending, another foster family informed the court that they wanted to adopt the child. This couple had no relation to Violet, but had adopted her older half-sibling. Violet had never met the sibling or this new family who lived halfway across country, but because state statute required an absolute preference for blood ties regardless of all other considerations, Violet’s adoption plans were abandoned while the court was forced to order weekend visitations between Violet and the newcomers. When handed to a complete stranger, Violet cried inconsolably and had to be pried from her foster mother. She returned from the visits withdrawn and fragile.

Violet’s clear path to adoption became a twisted road between what was best for Violet and what the law required when a relative stepped forward – no matter the preferences of the biological mother, no matter how distant the blood relation, no matter how late in the game. It is a well-intended law designed to keep children with their blood relations, but poorly executed in a manner that removes children from loving homes and places them with strangers.

Violet’s case was in Arizona, but this is a common scenario nationwide.

Arizona took the lead in amending the law to put the child front and center. First, the new law requires an early and diligent search for relatives. Arizona now requires an immediate and diligent relative search for every child placed in foster care within thirty days. Blood relatives are and should be the preference for children who are unable to remain at home. At the same time, it is crucial to locate all willing and able biological relatives at the onset of a child’s court case. To ensure that agencies follow the law, the reform also requires the child welfare agency to file the efforts made to locate relatives with the court. Model legislation for this reform takes it a step further and provides any located relative a timeframe in which they must decide whether to foster the child to ensure that children are in safe and stable homes as soon as possible and not subject to unnecessary moves.

Second, the law recognizes the importance of bonding and attachment to the healthy development of children. To that end, if an infant or toddler has been with a foster family for nine months, the foster family is the legal equivalent of kin. If a relative appears late in the child’s case, foster parents do not automatically get to adopt, but the court may now consider all options equally and make a determination based on the needs of the child, instead of having their hands tied and being legally forced to move a child from a stable family months or years later.

The law brings critical balance to child welfare by putting relatives up front quickly and clearly for priority placement, but recognizing that those decisions must be made without delay for the sake of the child.

Taking Arizona’s lead, Georgia and Alabama followed suit and amended their state laws to reflect the importance of finding relatives early and child well-being by allowing foster parents a seat at the adoption table. But work remains to be done. Florida, I’m looking at you. And I’m thinking about the child in Pasco County.

A child should not be at risk of moving from the only family he’s ever known based on a law that does not contemplate the child himself. Florida law requires an influx of flexibility and should be the next in line to amend their law by putting what is best for families and children at its core.

Rebecca Masterson is chief counsel of Gen Justice, a Phoenix-based nonprofit dedicated to improving the foster care system for vulnerable children through policy reform, litigation and education.

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